Tag Archives: expat aidworkers

Aid Worker Images vs Reality

I recently wrote an article for the online academic platform, The Conversation. You can read it below, or go directly to the Conversation website here (and sign up to their newsletter if you enjoy it!)

Why a commonly held idea of what aid workers are like fails to tell the full story

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hikrcn/Shutterstock

Gemma Houldey, University of Sussex

The common idea of the aid worker is of a selfless soul who travels far from home to an unfamiliar and challenging environment, giving up a more privileged existence in their own country. More often than not that the aid worker comes from the developed world, and that they are most probably white. It may be startling for to learn that about 90% of aid workers are in fact nationals working in their own countries in the developing world.

This is more than a question of perception. Aid organisations, by and large, were established in Western nations and a good majority are still managed from offices in cities such as London, New York or Geneva, although there has been an increased commitment in recent years to decentralise to the global south. In addition, on the back of promises made at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, international NGOs are pursuing further localisation of their human resources.

However, my research into stress and well-being of aid workers in Kenya suggests that the experience for local aid workers continues to be a very different prospect indeed. Interviews with more than 100 Kenyans and expatriates working for international humanitarian, development and human rights organisations highlighted that the motivations and values associated with aid work are more complicated than is often assumed. They are often tied to socio-economic status and living conditions. The contrast between local workers and expatriates can be sharp.

Destination Kenya.
atdr/Shutterstock

Sacrifices

The majority of expatriates I met were Europeans or Americans living in Nairobi. The Kenyan government has in recent years restricted the number of work permits issued to expatriates, but those interviewed were in long-term, relatively well paid and fairly senior jobs in their organisations. They lived in luxury apartments or townhouses close to their office, and could afford to spend their holidays back in Europe or in Kenya’s beach houses or safari lodges.

As part of my field research I also travelled to one of Kenya’s poorest counties, Turkana, where most expatriates I met worked in the Kakuma refugee camp, on contracts lasting between a few months and three years. At the end of their contracts they would move on to another emergency posting, probably in another country.

The situation for the Kenyan aid workers I met was very different. In Nairobi they often lived far from their office, in order to afford accommodation that could house their families. In Turkana, Kenyans I spoke to had partners and families hundreds of kilometres away in another part of the country. They could only see them every eight to ten weeks, during their rest and recuperation, a compulsory break taken from humanitarian operations which usually lasts about a week.

Villagers discuss development plans in Turkana.
European Commission DG ECHO, CC BY-NC-ND

For Kenyans, two of those days were often spent travelling to and from home; unlike their expat counterparts, they were not always entitled to a free flight to Nairobi as part of their contract. In spite of this, there were Kenyans who had been working in Turkana for more than ten years, choosing to sacrifice family life for a steady and reliable income; an income which, at an estimated US$2,300 a month, is high when compared with other sectors in Kenya.

This was a key difference between the perceptions of aid work among Kenyans and Western expatriates. In the latter case, aid work is often seen, at least by one’s peers and family, as heroic self-sacrifice; in the former case it is seen as a lucrative job that produces an income with which to support one’s dependants. As one Kenyan woman working in the Kakuma refugee camp told me:

Here they don’t see me as a hero, hell no! Never ever. They don’t. Back at home … they’re even proud of you. Because you have a job and they feel it’s a better paying job.

Staying Committed

Kenyan aid workers demonstrated commitment to their work by staying in jobs that kept them away from their families, and instead lived in remote and difficult conditions. As one Kenyan man who worked in a small village in Turkana close to the Ethiopian border, told me:

It is just a matter of getting used to those circumstances. So at first, I was getting challenged, because I was used to being with my family … I will not leave my job to stay with my family, what will I eat, if I leave a job? … I prefer my family get something to eat.

Kenyan aid workers believed that their organisations did not always recognise, or reward, these types of commitment. One man I interviewed works in Nairobi on African governance issues. He travelled frequently with his international NGO, but he also had to find time to visit his wife, who lived and worked 400km away in western Kenya. He also supported some of his siblings’ schooling. He told me that his organisation did little to recognise the specific challenges that national staff go through in this respect. This was demotivating.

At times, I ask myself, I need to move to get a little more, just to be able to support my family … and these are very genuine concerns. Fine you are dedicated, but then, if you are dedicated and for me I’m dedicated, yet I also can’t steal, you know, so what do I do?

Commitment and sacrifice, words so often associated with aid work, have different meanings in the context of nationals who are struggling to support their families as well as fulfil personal ideals and values.

In a country where swathes of the population still live below the poverty line, Kenyans do not have the same choices as many of their expatriate counterparts. This is an issue of concern to many other national aid workers in the global south. And this is reflected also, unfortunately, in the way aid organisations themselves treat their national staff.

The ConversationThe aid sector’s increased recognition of these disparities, and commitments to change, are encouraging; but this recognition needs to trickle down to field level so that all personnel have greater understanding of, and sympathy for, the specific challenges faced by national staff.

Gemma Houldey, PhD Researcher, Development Studies, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Meaning of Commitment in Aid Work

Commitment is a key element of aid work. It is assumed, or may even be a requirement in a job description, that in order to work in this sector, one must be committed. And in aid work, the idea of commitment arguably stands out as different from many other professions because there is a very clear moral dimension to it.   The job is generally geared towards noble objectives such as ‘serving humanity’, ‘saving lives’, ‘ending poverty’. Similar to some other helping professions – doctors, carers, teachers for instance – but arguably with an even greater moral investment, due to aid work’s dedication to always supporting the less fortunate, the oppressed, the ‘victim’. It can mean that the aid worker themselves is judged according to how much they are willing to dedicate their lives to the cause, and to what extent they fail to meet the lofty ideals of ‘serving humanity.’

During my field research in Kenya, I found that national aid workers in particular could be judged negatively on these terms: they were not as committed, or motivated, as their European colleagues. As Mario*, an Italian development consultant I met in Nairobi, put it:

“It’s a job, they need it. From being Italian, I see more motivation from expats than locals. They do care up to a certain point, but there is motivation if there is the right compensation. In general, the way the expat interpret motivation, locals are less motivated.”

European expat aid workers on the other hand, attached a particular moral value to their work, which Mario summarised as: “I care for beneficiaries, I want to change their life. I want to make a difference.”

Yet commitment comes in many forms, as I saw during my field research. I met many Kenyan aid workers who had, for instance, stayed in their jobs for years and were living hundreds of kilometres away from their spouse and family. Some would only get to visit their family during their R and R (rest and recuperation) every 8-10 weeks. Some of these aid workers were in ‘non-family duty stations’ or ‘unaccompanied posts’ – working in conditions such as Kakuma or Dadaab refugee camp where they were explicitly not allowed to bring their loved ones. So their commitment to their work had been written in to their contract in terms of how often and when they could actually take a break and see their family.

The commitment required in these sorts of circumstances thus has wider implications for aid workers and their personal lives. It is perhaps no surprise that many aid workers I met were struggling in their romantic lives; either remaining single for long periods or with marriages that were falling apart. Japhet, a Rwandese aid worker I spoke to explained these challenges to me in the context of working in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya.

“When you come to a place like Kakuma you have been removed from your place, your normal life, where you had a life and probably where a relationship would have developed because that is where you know people, you have friends and all of that. And you are here in a sort of temporary [situation]…so I don’t deny that you could meet someone here. But in a way this never feels like home, for you to build something.”

The women I spoke to also acknowledged these challenges. How long could they remain committed to the work they were doing, when they were also keen to commit to a relationship and to having a family? The Kenyan women I spoke to who were married with children also told me of how they at times felt pressure from their husbands to not travel so much, the assumption being that commitment should be to family first. One young Kenyan woman working for an international NGO in Kakuma explained these torn commitments to me:

“As a woman, when you focused your head onto career, your goal is always to be much better, much better, much better. So you know relationships, fine it’s there but you don’t even take it seriously […] And again women with empowerment […] I don’t know if it’s all women but African women….there is nothing a man will tell. And you know our men are very, very, very…they need a woman who is submissive. So if me, I tell this guy I’m bringing 50% and you’re bringing 50% to the house and we need to respect one another […] and you also need to help out with the work. There’s no African man who will…understand that.”

Peter, a Kenyan man who has worked for the UN since the 1990s and who I met in Kakuma, claimed that most relationships in the aid sector are doomed to failure. He himself had been through two failed marriages and his family were dotted around the country so he sometimes wouldn’t see them for several months at a time. He believed that most Kenyans – both men and women – if given the choice would prioritise an income over spending time with their family. And indeed there were women I met who were doing exactly this, as well as the men. Evelyn, for instance, worked in Kakuma refugee camp and only got to see her two and a half year old child – who was staying with her mother – when she was on R and R every 10 weeks. She acknowledged she was lucky she had someone to help her with the child – her husband was studying at a university in another district – but that other women weren’t so fortunate. “Sometimes, I can see most women…if they don’t really have…the husband doesn’t really understand their work, it can cost their work,” Evelyn told me. “So the woman can really tend to resign from work, then take care of the children. Rather than letting the children to suffer.”

The concept of commitment for Kenyans – and other African expat aid workers I met in Kenya – was thus often tied to building one’s career and the need for a reliable income to support their family. This may seem at odds with the ‘commitment to the cause’ that is assumed, and pushed, by aid organisations. Does this really matter?

The idea of commitment – or motivation – in aid work is often steeped in notions of morality and humanitarian values. These may seem like noble conceptualisations of commitment, but ones which perhaps favour the western aid worker. Many aid workers from Europe or America, conscious (or perhaps not) of their privilege, are motivated to do this work by a sense of guilt or responsibility; wanting to connect with or help others less fortunate than themselves, often in communities where western countries have played a direct role in oppression. Of course Kenyans, and other national aid workers, are just as likely to be guided by specific morals and ideals as their western counterparts. But there are other equally important, and personal, factors at play – such as responsibility towards one’s extended family as the only person with a comfortable income, or being a woman who is determined to be independent and ambitious and to challenge patriarchal norms in her society. Westerners should perhaps think more carefully about different forms of commitment – particularly in the context of those whose socio-economic choices are far more limited than our own – before judging national aid workers on the basis of lofty humanitarian values.

*Names have been anonymised throughout this blog piece. 

 

 

The Return Home: The Shared Experiences of Aid Workers and Researchers

It is nearly two weeks since I left Kenya. The feelings I have as I readjust to UK life are very similar to what I’ve been through before when I’ve returned from mission, only this time I’m returning as a doctoral researcher who has just completed her field research. This fuzzy-headedness, lack of clarity, depletion of energy. Wanting to be alone, not finding the words to express how I’m feeling about being back. Questioning whether anyone would understand, or does anyone really care anyway? And also just feeling too tired, confused and disorientated to engage in that conversation.

Tiredness – or what I would actually describe as inertia – is a familiar feeling to me post-mission or field trip. It’s that feeling of returning home where there are lots of things you need to get done, but where there is an inability to move forward. For a while the tasks pile up, and all you can do is sit there and watch it happen as you feel powerless to do anything about it. Much of the time you just want to be somewhere on your own, doing nothing. This state of inertia is usually short-lived, and I’ve learned that I just have to accept it, and all the complicated feelings wrapped up with it, whilst also remaining present to those feelings. Writing often helps in those moments too.

Aid workers and academic researchers share other experiences too. There is that same emotional attachment to friendships and experiences in the field that seemed unique and intense and unlikely to be replicated in any way back home. Perhaps this is part of just being an expat in foreign lands; the friendships we make tend to be of a quality and intensity that is quite different from the steady development of relationships in our home country. And perhaps it is also linked to the nature of our experiences in a country that is so different from our own. Both aid workers and academic researchers are exposed to communities who, in development studies-speak, are seen as ‘subaltern’ – outside of and excluded from the hegemonic power structures of the global north, often rendering them disenfranchised, disempowered and underprivileged. My actual research subjects – unlike those of many anthropologists and ethnographers – do not necessarily fit this category as in many respects they were seen as the elite. Even a Kenyan aid worker from a poor background – and many I spoke to related to me an upbringing of struggle and hardship – is seen as part of the elite as the NGO sector is perceived by the average Kenyan as pretty lucrative; although many I spoke challenged this assumption.

The point is that, whether as a researcher or an aid worker, we are forced to often step way beyond our comfort zone into a world that is unfamiliar to us, where we have to work hard at understanding different social or cultural norms, and where we are often exposed to poverty and suffering on a daily basis of a kind most people in the UK or other wealthy countries could not comprehend. Such moments of exposure – which so quickly become normalised, for both the aid worker and the researcher – nevertheless leave an indelible mark on one’s memory. And such memories are very hard to communicate to others or even make personal sense of back in the comforts of everyday life in the UK. This is partly why the friendships we make in the field are so meaningful, because of that shared, complex experience.

So I find myself, as a researcher, in that strange transient zone I’ve grown familiar with as an aid worker; where I’m here in the UK, walking through the streets of London or Brighton or sitting at home, but much of the time my mind is elsewhere. It’s with the four year old child that was tugging at my sleeve and begging me for money as I bought groceries in Kakuma town. Or with the young Somali incentive worker (refugees who volunteer for the aid agencies and are paid a stipend) who walked me around Kakuma camp, telling me his life story and how since fleeing Somalia as a young child in 1992 he had grown up in Kenya’s refugee camps. Or with the friends I made in Nairobi, many of whom were aid workers themselves, who were there for me when I felt lonely and isolated. Who I felt so touched by when they opened up to me with such trust, telling me the personal challenges they’ve gone through with their work, and who I hope I helped in some way by just being there for them, listening to their doubts, fears, angers and anxieties.

It won’t be long before I immerse myself fully again in UK life and in the next stages of my Phd – the daunting phase of data analysis and thesis writing. But for now the same rules apply as I have taught myself as an aid worker, and which helped me so much in recent years. Stay present to your feelings. Be gentle on yourself. Spend time doing what you love. And find healthy and nurturing ways to reconnect with friends and family.

We are ultimately so lucky to have these experiences, whether as aid workers or academic researchers, as they enable us to broaden our perspectives and connect with a humanity that is far beyond the limited world view of our upbringing. And there are many ways we can put those experiences to good use, both at home and abroad.

 

Finding Purpose and Managing Expectations in Aid Work

There’s been a fair amount of debate recently regarding people from the western world who travel to the developing world (particularly Africa) with high ideals of saving lives and leave feeling disappointed or worse, depressed. First there was the ‘Linton Lies’ debacle where a white British woman’s published book describing her experiences as a volunteer in Zambia, and the neo-colonial language she used in the book, were challenged through the social media hashtag #LintonLies.

Then this week an anonymous aid worker wrote about the depression they suffered after working for an international NGO in an unnamed African country. Both individuals have drawn criticism for having white saviour complexes. Their stories also raise important issues about whether aid organisations – working with volunteers or paid professionals – make the appropriate decisions in who they send on these ‘missions’ and whether the people sent are sufficiently prepared for the working environment they will find themselves in. The criticisms levelled at these individuals, and the concerns their stories prompt about institutional responsibilities – whilst certainly worthy of attention – are not the focus of this blog post.

There is an overriding theme that emerges from the stories of these individuals which I find particularly interesting right now, and that is expectations. How do personal, organisational and societal expectations feed into aid workers’ sense of, or indeed loss of, purpose? This question is as legitimate for national aid workers from developing countries as it is for western aid workers from privileged backgrounds.

Aid workers often enter the sector with high morals and ideals about saving the world or humanity. And there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to play a role in improving the lives of others, or ending social or economic injustices. The reality of the work though can be far from what aid workers had in mind. Not only this, but aid workers are often juggling the huge expectations from their organisation, from their organisation’s donors, and from the populations receiving the organisation’s assistance. Feelings of guilt and shame arise when as an aid worker you realise that organisational policies, poor management or insufficient – or worse, wasted – resources, mean that some of the communities you are assisting will not actually receive the help that is so urgently needed, and their lives will not change for the better through your interventions. Under these circumstances it is not difficult to wonder whether your efforts were worth it, or even necessary in the first place.

Kenyan aid workers I’ve spoken to have told me of how one of their major challenges is responding to the expectations of the communities they are assisting, particularly in poorer regions such as Turkana in northern Kenya where the needs are greater.  An organisation’s mandate to work solely on human rights protection, for instance, means little to someone in urgent need of food and water.The chances are that as an aid worker you will have to get used to saying no to requests for help far more than you can say yes. And the justification for saying no can at times seen unethical, unfair or unjust.

As noted in the Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker article, there are also work pressures that are not envisaged when entering into this sector; tasks and responsibilities that go beyond your job description. This includes the unspoken expectation that you will check your e-mails regularly outside working hours, including weekends. Or being told that it would be better if you delay your R and R (rest and recuperation) because you’re needed in the office, thereby resulting in you not seeing your family for another few weeks after having already been away for 2 months.

Much of what I’m talking about here has nothing to do with western aid workers with white saviour complexes. National aid workers are just as likely to have these same challenges; indeed many Kenyan aid workers I’ve spoken to have referred to them. One Kenyan female humanitarian worker told me how she travelled to Dadaab to conduct a training in the camp, 33 weeks pregnant and on a bumpy and unsafe road, because the colleague who was meant to be going had fallen sick and couldn’t make it. Another Kenyan woman working for an international humanitarian agency told me that she had to work over much of the Christmas period in response to a string of natural disasters and conflicts occurring in the region, requiring an urgent response. Her exhaustion from this episode resulted in what she called a ‘burnout’. This was dealt with partly by establishing a more disciplined working pattern, where at a certain time outside working hours she would stop checking and responding to e-mails and be called by phone only in an emergency.

But what I find particularly relevant for aid workers – and perhaps this is also the case for others in the ‘helping professions’ – is the role of personal expectations in one’s experiences. Many aid workers are driven by a shared experience of injustice, or by a desire to help others less fortunate than themselves. Their expectation is that they can make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Indeed this is also backed up by the agendas of their organisations, so often popularised through the media images of aid workers feeding hungry children or building shelters for refugees.

There is thus an emotional investment; a sense of responsibility – rightly or wrongly – for the wellbeing and survival of others who are suffering. There is also an expectation – again at times reinforced by one’s employers – that this responsibility towards others comes before responsibility to oneself. One Ethiopian UN worker I spoke to went as far as to say, ‘if I don’t go through what I’m going through, some boy or girl somewhere will either miss their meal….or some boy or girl somewhere would not have education…or kids will miss their vaccination or immunisation and these are the vital services that children need….’

Perhaps what is important in all of this, if aid workers are to continue their efforts without burning out, is for them to find purpose in what they do. The recent Secret Aid Worker’s story, along with many others from aid workers, highlight that loss of purpose is often a trigger for depression and burnout. But what is also important is having realistic expectations about one’s purpose in the first place. This requires aid workers to engage in some self-reflection about their role in helping others – and this should certainly include a willingness to recognise their privileged position and skewed view point in relation to the populations they are assisting, something that Louise Linton in particular was accused of failing to do. But aid workers should also acknowledge, accept and work within their limitations – whether these are down to organisational policies, the environmental context or simply being human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aid Workers in Turkana: Outsider Lives and Compound Lifestyles

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been up in Turkana county, in northern Kenya. This is one of Kenya’s poorest counties; dry, arid and hot, it is not an easy life up here. Rural and pastoralist communities are spread out throughout the county, struggling to survive with a scarcity of water and relying on their cattle, goats and camels and various Food for Assets and Credit Transfer programmes; since the devolution process started in 2013, the county government is now leading many of these development initiatives in the area. Meanwhile, the refugee community in Kakuma in Turkana West sub-county is struggling to survive on the handouts of humanitarian agencies, with everyone waiting to find out if the camp – home to around 185000 refugees – will be closed following the Kenyan government’s announcement to this effect a few weeks ago.

It goes without saying that this is a very different context for aid interventions than Nairobi, where I’ve been most of the time whilst conducting field research in Kenya. In Nairobi aid workers are either based in national offices where they travel out to the field every few weeks, to their programmes dotted around the country (this of course includes Somalia for a lot of organisations, who cannot be based in the country permanently due to security risks); or they are based in the regional offices where they may be travelling even less, playing an administrative or supportive role to the staff based in countries such as South Sudan or Uganda.

Here in Turkana you can find aid and development workers who have barely travelled to Nairobi; some who are from Turkana and have rarely left the county. The air conditioned, bustling offices and plywood desks and swivel chairs of the INGO national headquarters in Nairobi are a long long way away. Here in Turkana most INGO offices are on sandy, dusty compounds with few trees or foliage, and a slow, sleepy atmosphere permeates with only fans and an occasional breeze to cool people down in temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to here, whether programme directors or field officers, are Kenyans. This would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. The expat aid worker presence, both here and in Nairobi, is falling year by year as Kenyan expertise increase and the restructuring of INGOs leads to more operations being managed and implemented at local and national level rather than from Europe. This reality, which can be seen across the globe as well as in Kenya, makes the need for greater recognition of the specific challenges faced by national aid workers even more crucial if we are to fully understand aid practice.

And here I outline some of those challenges that I’ve noticed as I spend time in Lodwar, the main city in Turkana and the local base for development INGOs including Oxfam, World Vision, Child Fund and Save the Children among others; and Kakuma, the base for humanitarian INGOs and UN agencies providing assistance to the refugee camp.

  • Many of the Kenyans I’ve spoken to are not from Turkana; their families are in another part of the country and they are visiting them every 2 or 3 months when they are on R and R (rest and recuperation). This is not the sort of place to bring your family, I’ve heard a few people say. So they must make do with speaking to their loved ones on the phone – provided they are not right out in the rural areas, where phone network may not work – or on skype – provided there is internet network, which is very intermittent here. And after 2 months, they spend what can be a day or more travelling to their family homes, for what may only be 5 days if they stick solely to the R and R they’re entitled to.
  • For most of Turkana county, you can find aid workers staying in guest houses or local accommodation, some in remote villages with no electricity or internet, and some in Lodwar and other large towns. In Kakuma, you can find them in one of the UN or INGO compounds. These are self-contained areas housing offices and staff accommodation, some of them small prefab units for people passing through for a short period of time. When not in the camp, humanitarian workers are confined to these compounds – it is where they work, eat and socialise – and are expected to return there when the curfew begins in the refugee camp at 6pm. Whether in Kakuma or other towns and villages in Turkana, there is not much to do outside office hours. None of the fancy restaurants found in Nairobi. No yoga classes or parks to walk around. And no supermarkets selling luxury items. In these circumstances, the social structure of one’s organisation is often all that exists in terms of support and social interaction. But on some weekends people travel out of town, to their homes or on R and R. So the humanitarian compound can be a quiet, uneventful place. Although some compounds, particularly those housing the UN staff, are better than others – one here has a gym and tennis court as well as cafeteria and bar.
  • One is very aware here of being seen as an outsider. In Lodwar, aid workers from outside Turkana told me of how they find the culture very different from their own; characterised by the diet – a lot of meat, mainly goat – or by the perceptions of women, for instance. One African expat in a senior position at an INGO told me of how she found the local authorities very reluctant to meet her when she arrived to introduce herself and make herself known to the community. She suspected there would have been a very different welcome if she’d been a man. Several others I spoke to in Lodwar commented on how the local community had seemed very suspicious towards them at first. This is partly a throwback to the derogatory treatment they were subjected to in colonial times, I was told; but also part of their guarded attitude as pastoralists defending their small communities and livestock, and their disillusionment with INGOs coming and going with endless surveys and overambitious or unfulfilled promises of development assistance.
  • In Kakuma, mistrust plays out in a different way. There is hostility particularly from the host community, who are tired of seeing the plethora of aid agencies turning up in their four wheel drives, hiding behind huge compounds just beside the refugee camp, and assisting the refugee community whilst apparently ignoring the abject poverty of the local population; although a number of organisations are trying to address this disparity with development interventions with the host community as well. One American expat told me of how she’d been attacked twice whilst going for a run in the area outside her compound, although she escaped largely unharmed on both occasions. Refugees too are also at times unhappy with the insufficient assistance received from the aid agencies here, occasionally protesting outside the agency compounds.

What is important to most aid workers I speak to in Turkana is having some form of social support network to turn to. Sometimes this may only be friends and family back home. For others, who are stuck up in a remote village for two months, it may be just one other colleague who is there with them. And for the expat humanitarian workers here in Kakuma, friendships are challenged by the continuing turnover of staff, as people finish one humanitarian posting and move on to another.

Life isn’t all bad of course. Staying in a quiet town with few ways to pass one’s time means money is saved, and for Kenyans this is particularly important when there are likely to be several relatives from the extended family expecting support. Expat aid workers have their supplies of luxury items such as olive oil, muesli, cheese and wine they’ve brought with them from Nairobi to keep them happy. And in the humanitarian compounds there is usually a party or gathering to go to at a neighbour’s house; one aid worker described his life there as ‘a bit like summer camp’.

Few aid workers have complained directly about their work with the communities. Those that have refer to the difficulties of meeting people’s expectations, particularly in what is often referred to as a very aid-dependent community. Most love the work they do, and feel a sense of fulfilment from the impact it has. The greater challenges often relate to what can at times be unbearable heat; the rough terrain throughout Turkana which can halt transport plans, particularly in the rainy season, leaving aid workers stranded in one place with few provisions; and the insecurity in certain areas – particularly on the borders with West Pokot county, where cattle rustling occurs between the Pokot and the Turkana pastoralists.

It has been an insightful time up here, exposing me far more directly to the realities of aid and development work than what I’ve witnessed so far in Nairobi. No doubt what I have described is familiar for many development and humanitarian workers. But outside the sector, these small but significant nuances are not always acknowledged in debates and analysis of what ‘aid work’ entails.

With only a few months left of my field research, it will soon be time to make sense of all of this and draw some conclusions, which I hope will be of value to the aid sector and to the many and diverse professionals working within it.

Aid worker motivations: more than escapism or altruism

Motivations remains a big topic in the ongoing debates and reflections on why aid workers stay in their jobs and why they leave. A few days ago, the Guardian published a piece by the author of a recent survey that investigated, among other issues, aid worker motivations.

The article itself is only a brief reflection on what is clearly a fairly extensive survey of over 1000 respondents from around the world, and which covered a range of topics including how aid workers describe their jobs to others, why they leave their jobs, the reasons why aid workers are rarely fired, and what people like and dislike about being in the sector. I look forward to when the data – available on the Aid Worker Voices blog site – is fully compiled and further conclusions and recommendations are published.

In the meantime though, the published data thus far raises some questions for me. The Guardian article certainly touches on some important challenges faced by aid workers on a day-to-day basis. For instance, how they relate to their friends and family back home who have little understanding of the work they do. And their sense of belonging in and loyalty to the communities they work with in developing countries. But I do wonder are these actually motivating factors we are talking about – the main drivers of why people chose to stay in their particular jobs? These may indeed be the reasons why aid workers put off leaving a country and returning home. I know of a few people myself who feel an increasing disconnect with what they see as the privileged and humdrum lives of their family and friends back home. But I’m not sure this has anything to do with why someone choses to stay in a job where they are fighting a particular cause, often with little reward in terms of meaningful change to people’s lives.

A glance on the Aid Worker Voices site where the survey’s initial findings are, offers greater insights into motivating factors, but I would still love to find out more about the survey respondents. What drove them to enter the aid sector in the first place, or to work in their particular roles? I know I’ve repeated this point over and over in this blog, but that’s because it is the rationale and basis for my own investigations into aid worker wellbeing: the personal matters if we are to understand how aid workers perceive and respond to the emotional challenges of their work. Whilst self-development of one sort or another may be one reason why people enter and stay in this sector, I feel the motivations behind choosing to be a gender specialist, or an advocacy officer, or a country director are more complicated than that. These career decisions may be economic as much as political, and may also be extremely personal and related to an aid worker’s direct experiences of injustice.

Another issue repeated throughout the Life in Crisis site is that we need to identify more closely who exactly we are talking about when we refer to ‘aid workers’. Too often the focus is on expats, when the majority within this sector are nationals operating in their own countries. Likewise, too often the expats themselves are assumed to be from countries in the northern hemisphere, ignoring the increasing number who are from the global south. It is not clear from the survey cited in the Guardian who all the respondents are, but I suspect they are mostly Americans and Europeans. A survey on aid worker motivations that focuses more on aid workers from the global south may have brought up very different responses. I speak from experience, given the data I have collected so far during my field research in Kenya. For instance, unlike western expats who talk a lot about family and friends back home not understanding their work but nevertheless applauding them as heroes, national aid workers often do not receive this sort of praise. Kenyan aid workers I’ve spoken to here refer to how their families generally disapprove of what they’re doing, questioning why they have to travel so often and why they don’t get a ‘proper job’. This is particularly hard for women in societies that expect them to stay home and cook and clean for the family. Furthermore, expats may complain that their families think they are doing low paid voluntary work, but for nationals working in the aid sector, the opposite is often true; family members assume, sometimes incorrectly, that aid workers have lots of money and thus their relative can afford to help more towards schools fees and medical care.

This relates also to another distinction between expat and national aid workers experiences. Whilst expats may eventually leave their jobs because they want more financial security – one of the findings emerging from the Aid Worker Voices data – nationals may stay in their jobs for that very same reason; because for them, a job in the aid sector provides a stable income that they can’t afford to let go of, even if they find the job extremely demanding and stressful. Indeed it is assumed by many expats I’ve spoken to that most national aid workers are motivated primarily by financial factors.

An interesting point made by someone I spoke to recently is that it may be a healthier attitude to have to one’s work – to see it purely as a job like any other, that brings a monthly salary, and which one will do to the best of one’s abilities. It is perhaps the ideological factors underpinning many aid workers’ motivations – both expats and nationals – that create the disappointment and disillusionment that can eventually lead to burnout. This is because the aid sector is full of unrealised hopes and unmet expectations about what we can achieve. The survey respondents acknowledge this in the Aid Worker Voices blog, and in my own research I am investigating how people experience and respond to what they feel are personal or organisational failings. Such insights can tell us a lot about why people struggle with aid work, and why some people cope better than others in managing its demands.

Aid worker salaries and meanings for motivation

Last week my blog post on motivations in aid work was published at the same time as the spotlight was once again shone on aid worker salaries and benefits disparities. The Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker piece which questioned why expats receive as much as three times more compensation for their work than their national counterparts, was followed by another Guardian article summarising what continues to be a polarised response from the aid worker community.

Some would argue that the discrepancies in compensation – with expats often entitled to regular R and R, flights home, housing and hardship allowances and the payment of school fees for their children – create divisions within the workplace and fail to recognise the distinctive expertise of national staff that should also be rewarded. Some expats are quick to defend the higher salaries and allowances afforded to them due to the sacrifices they make in moving from their home country, usually taking a drop in salary to do this sort of work, and often still having to cover housing, school or family costs back home.

This debate is an important one – you can add your voice to it in a survey posted via the Evil Genius site  – and is happening on a regular basis within aid organisations, although often in hushed tones. The very fact that there is this disparity, and sometimes glaringly so, is likely to create tensions between national and expat staff. I often wonder myself what it must feel like for Kenyans here to see their colleagues driving to their homes six kilometres away in their four wheel drives while the Kenyan staff queue for a matatu to take them on what can be a two hour journey across town to an area where rent is more affordable. Or what it feels like to know that as a Kenyan you are treated as a ‘national staff’ in a place like Somalia or South Sudan, and thus paid less and not protected by the same security procedures as the European and American aid workers doing the same job. I think Western expats should at the very least acknowledge these differences and how they feed into a neo-colonial narrative that assumes white people are more deserving of certain privileges because of their backgrounds, expertise and experience. The uncomfortable truth that even African expats are likely to be treated differently from their white counterparts is highlighted by Crewe and Fernando:

Is it an unreasonable jump to have argued that the expatriate versus national opposition is linked to white versus non-white? The correlation is far from exact. But when people from the South take jobs in Europe or America they are not considered ‘expatriates’. It is often taken for granted that ‘expatriates’ means Euro- American experts whereas expatriates from elsewhere are given a specific identity (the ‘Ghanaian consultant’ or ‘consultant from the South’). So the jump is more reasonable than it appears at first.

(Crewe and Fernando, The elephant in the room: racism in representation, relationships and rituals, Progress in Development Studies 6, 1, 2006; 51)

Putting this particular hot potato aside, I also think we should be reflecting on what role adequate compensation plays in doing our work well. I’m aware of some NGOs – both national and international – where there are very few benefits for expats and salaries are so low that although you may be able to afford a modest apartment in the country you’re working in, you certainly couldn’t afford to live anywhere back home. The thinking behind this a lot of the time is, ‘we hire people because of their dedication to the cause – a quality that loses legitimacy if rewarded with too much compensation’. The assumption is that a desirable income suggests motivations of self-interest that go against the noble intentions associated with aid work. For a young aid worker who is new to the industry this arrangement may seem morally correct; but realities and attitudes change once you consider how you’re going to pay for a flight home, or for rent or daily living when you get there. Your dedication to the cause eventually has to be weighed against building a future and a settled, financially secure life for yourself. And aid workers want and need this like anyone else does.

Aid work is now increasingly seen as a professional role like any other; it is not driven purely by altruistic values. In Kenya, it is in fact a fairly lucrative profession in many instances – for both nationals and expats. This is partly why so many will not leave their jobs, no matter how much they struggle with it or how mean their boss is – they do not want to let go of the benefits that come with it.

We should not therefore discount the possibility that aid workers stay in their jobs because of the income and benefits they receive; but we should also not assume that this completely undermines any suggestion that aid worker motivations are, or should be, moral or altruistic. Perhaps, as one study of Bangledeshi NGO workers suggests, these sorts of intentions should be rewarded if staff are to remain committed to what they do. This should apply none more so than to national aid workers. They are often operating in difficult, sometimes highly dangerous settings, and their close proximity to the communities they assist may bring specific challenges; for instance, they themselves may be exposed to the same health or security risks as these communities, or they may become a target of government surveillance or harassment. Yet these national aid workers rarely have the same privileges of R and R, evacuation, or being able to easily find a job in another country, as their expat counterparts. These distinctive circumstances demand greater recognition, and reward.

 

The Role of Staff Welfare in Improving Humanitarian Practice

Yesterday saw the launch of three reports on humanitarian practice in Nairobi, and also saw me presenting on a panel for one of the reports. The panel was organised by the CHS (Core Humanitarian Standard) Alliance, a network of around 260 humanitarian organisations operating in 160 countries worldwide.   Its work focuses on ensuring the core humanitarian standards – nine commitments on quality and accountability – are mainstreamed throughout all humanitarian operations.

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A photo on display at the conference: MSF workers deliver food parcels to a remote mountain region in Nepal (Tatiana Kotova)

The CHS Alliance’s Humanitarian Accountability Report is entitled On the Road to Istanbul: How can the World Humanitarian Summit make humanitarian response more effective? In its 13 chapters, written by different experts from the humanitarian sector, 5 key themes are addressed, which the panel members, including myself, spoke to in our different capacities:

  • the role of principled humanitarian response in building trust and facilitating access
  • how standards can drive appropriate, effective and timely aid
  • strengthening national capacities in aid delivery
  • collective accountability and transparent decision making
  • good people management practices

This report launch coincided with two others – ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report 2015 and Quality and Accountability Initiatives by the Inter-Agency Working Group on Disaster Preparedness in East and Central Africa. Whilst the content of these reports and the presentations given by the different speakers at yesterday’s event are all very relevant to the debates around improving humanitarian effectiveness, I will only touch here on the issue which concerns me most within my own area of interest – staff welfare. This was what I was discussing on the panel in the morning, and is an issue which was hotly debated on the margins of the global consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit happening in May 2016.

Sadly, I did not see these debates being addressed or given much attention in yesterday’s event, which was attended by around 80 regional and country directors and managers from various aid agencies, including UNOCHA, World Vision, Save the Children, Oxfam, Action Aid, Red Cross and Danish Refugee Council. The tendency of staff security, safety and welfare to be sidelined by what are seen as the bigger priorities of meeting the growing needs of populations living in crisis situations is nothing new. And certainly given the reality of today’s world crises and conflicts – creating higher numbers of refugees and populations in need of assistance – it is no surprise that humanitarian decision makers find it hard to consider their own health when having to make what often amount to life or death decisions affecting thousands of people.

Yet one issue highlighted in the ALNAP report on the State of the Humanitarian System  – the threefold increase in attacks on humanitarian workers since 2002 – demonstrate the huge risks, and the implications of these risks, for people working in emergency settings. In 2013, 151 humanitarian workers were killed, 171 wounded and 134 kidnapped. The majority of these were national aid workers, operating in their own countries. The increase in attacks are partly down to the changing nature of global conflict, with humanitarian workers now often being specifically targeted by non-state actors and armed groups. But as we’ve seen with the case of the MSF hospital blown up in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Western states are also responsible for flouting the laws governing armed conflict, directly affecting those engaged in humanitarian operations.

A photo on display at the conference: humanitarian workers on their way by helicopter to an IDP camp in South Sudan (Andrea Contenta)

A photo on display at the conference: humanitarian workers on their way to an IDP camp in South Sudan (Andrea Contenta)

As security risks to humanitarian workers are on the increase, so too is the likelihood of chronic forms of stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, for those working in the midst of crisis. My presentation at the CHS Alliance report launch highlighted two distinct issues arising from this reality, to be considered by humanitarian organisations. One was the need for organisations to understand the different cultural interpretations and ways of dealing with stress.   Staff welfare strategies, in terms of addressing problems such as stress, burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder, must acknowledge the diversity of the sector if they are to be effective. What is seen as stressful or traumatic for a white expat worker may be very different from what a Kenyan worker feels and experiences for instance. From the data I’ve collected so far in my research I’ve found that addressing the mental and physical health needs of national humanitarian staff is a major challenge. This is partly to do with inadequate support structures that privilege the expat staff, and partly to do with the very different cultural understandings of how personal emotional difficulties are talked about and dealt with. One important way of addressing this is to consider the right language to be used for addressing these difficulties. Trauma, for instance, or the more general term ‘mental health’ are still stigmatised words, not only in Kenya but in many other contexts.

Another issue I touched on in the panel discussion is related to the structures and culture of aid organisations. Some people, particularly national aid workers, have told me that there is a resistance to openly discussing vulnerabilities or difficulties in coping because people fear losing their job. This macho culture of working long hours, not really looking after yourself and not admitting that you’re not coping is so common in this sector and having the right support mechanisms in place is not enough to change this.

Instead, both managers and staff need to be asking themselves, how can they break down the stigmatisation around seeking help? How can they open up the space to allow for people to share their vulnerabilities and their personal insecurities? A major element that drives humanitarian work is compassion – compassion for the community in crisis. That same compassion can be lost when it comes to individual staff members looking after themselves or their colleagues. So a change in culture means cultivating an environment where staff can reflect on their emotional challenges and those of their colleagues, where they can realise they are not alone in the difficulties they face with this work, and where their personal problems are met with sensitivity and understanding.

These issues are of the utmost importance to people working in the humanitarian sector, as evidenced in various online discussions happening at the moment in the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit next year. Yet so far there has been little recognition of the centrality of staff wellbeing to improving humanitarian practice; hence why it is not seen as a key theme to be addressed at the World Humanitarian Summit nor as an issue to be followed up in discussions such as those taking place in yesterday’s report launches in Nairobi. This is not to say that individuals, including those in the conference room yesterday, are not concerned about staff welfare. But addressing this part of humanitarian work remains far down the agenda of most aid organisations, and even more so for the donor agencies supporting those organisations. Humanitarian workers must continue to push the agenda of staff welfare within their organisations, and also at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. It should be an essential component in understanding how to make humanitarian action more effective and sustainable.

 

 

The Realities of a Life in Crisis

Watching Living in Emergency, a documentary film about doctors from the humanitarian agency Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) operating in Congo and Liberia, reminded me of the profound emotional challenges and difficult decisions that are part of everyday life for many aid workers. The film tracks the lives of several doctors working in post-conflict Liberia and war-torn Congo, some of them located in remote areas with few resources to treat the hundreds of sick and wounded people who come to them for assistance. It addresses many of the issues I’m grappling with as I conduct my field research on stress and burnout among aid workers in Kenya, and which are important factors in remembering the human behind the humanitarian.

  • MotivationsThese are complex and not always what may be assumed. Whilst it’s easy to think that aid workers have purely altruistic motives – the wish to help others – sometimes they are fighting their own personal demons or pursuing a form of happiness they never achieved back home. In the film, one MSF veteran of 9 years mentions that some people do this work to run away from something, as was the case with him and his escape from life back home in Australia. A doctor who gave up his comfortable life in the United States to work in a hospital in Liberia claims, ‘It ends up being a selfish thing. Somehow fixing other people fixes yourself’.
  • Disconnection with home. The longer that aid workers are working in foreign lands, far away from the comforts of home, and the more they are exposed to immense and at times relentless suffering, the harder it becomes to relate to friends and family thousands of miles away. The Australian doctor in Congo claims he is essentially ‘homeless’ after moving around for so many years. The American doctor in the only free emergency hospital in Liberia’s capital Monrovia at the time, says, ‘If you’re going to talk to some of your friends about some of the stuff you saw, and you can’t describe the smells, the feeling of the heat on your body, the sweat running down your back, the smell of the pus that hits your nose and the unwashed bodies in a closed room…the smell of your own panic when you’re not sure what to do…you can’t share that stuff.’
  • Tensions between expatriate and national aid workers. Expat aid workers can often forget the privileges associated with their position, particularly in relation to their national counterparts. In the aid sector, the term ‘expat’ is often assumed to refer to a white person from the global north. Furthermore, the term ‘expat’ is conflated with ‘expert’ in the language of the aid industry. These assumptions are problematic for the aid worker from the global south, who is left on the sidelines of dominant white expat approaches to aid. In Living in Emergency, these roles are played out between the expat staff and national staff at MSF. In one scene there is an altercation between a Liberian doctor who is accused of being arrogant by his Italian colleague after disputing treatment being recommended by one of the expat doctors. In front of the camera he tells his Italian colleague, ‘Tell your doctors to talk to me like a doctor and not like a small boy. And don’t tell me I’m arrogant because I disagree with the diagnosis’. The different experiences of national and expat aid workers are highlighted again when some of the expat staff prepare to leave the country. A national staff member comments to his colleagues, ‘don’t get used to any expatriates. As they go, other people come’.
  • Inability to meet expectations of populations in need. As an aid worker, you can at times feel that people are depending on you massively to save their lives. Indeed sometimes this is the case – you are their only hope. What you decide may affect whether that person survives. And sometimes you have to say no, because you can’t meet everyone’s expectations – perhaps because of lack of resources, or because of the limitations of your organisation’s mandate. In my own experience, people have sought my help and I have not been in a position to give them the assistance they need. In one case, the person died as a result of not accessing the required treatment. Doctors at MSF have to accept this reality all the time. As the American doctor says, ‘you have to be able to live with wrong decisions. That’s really hard to do.’ An Italian woman working for MSF in Liberia comments, ‘I think we all have the same question and that is, what is our limit?’ A young Australian doctor on his first MSF mission and working in a remote village in Congo says, ‘I compare myself to others and I wonder whether another doctor in the same setting would have had the energy….to spend longer with that patient, sleep less that night, and got more work done the following day than I got done.’
  • Loss of idealism. Many aid workers start off their career with a determination to put an end to some of the injustices that they have seen on the news or read about during their studies. When they travel to the field they face realities that challenge the noble intentions to simply do good and help others. In the face of war or extreme poverty, and limited by lack of resources, the sort of help they had envisaged giving may not be possible. As an Italian woman working for MSF in Liberia says, there is a loss of innocence: ‘At the beginning I was feeling good about everything I was doing. Now I’m not feeling good anymore’.

These are some of the realities of a ‘life in crisis’, whether working for MSF or another humanitarian agency. They are also the experiences at times of development and human rights workers, who aren’t necessarily operating in emergency settings but who on a daily basis are faced with immense suffering and expectations that they are unable to meet. The guilt associated with these realities is felt by many and may linger for a long time.

And while for expats there are undoubtedly significant challenges to working far away from one’s home country, and at times it can feel like living in two very different and disconnected worlds, the national aid worker has their own unique struggles. They have no choice to leave the country after a year. The suffering they witness is part of their own society, perhaps their own family and friends, and will not end when the expat finishes their mission.

These realities have emotional consequences. How do aid workers maintain a sense of hope in the face of the struggles they encounter as they carry out their work? What is important and gives meaning in their lives when confronted on a daily basis with so much suffering and so many challenges? Searching for the answers to these questions is a part of my research and should also be considered by aid organisations and staff alike in the quest to address stress and burnout in the aid sector more effectively.

Burnout in the Aid Sector: Debates and Emerging Issues

Burnout is a term that has become increasingly popular among the helping professions. Described by its key researchers as the emotional exhaustion and development of negative attitudes towards oneself and others that occurs among individuals doing ‘people work’  it is now increasingly recognised as a widespread problem within the aid sector. Within this sector, burnout is equated with mental and physical exhaustion, emotional detachment and insomnia arising from operating in challenging environments, heavy workload and insufficient social or organisational support. Concern has also been raised over its impact in terms of high staff turnover and absenteeism.

However the causes of burnout among aid workers are not clear or straightforward. There is a misguided assumption in much of the academic literature and public debates on this issue that chronic forms of stress such as burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder are associated with working in insecure or dangerous environments. This assumption fails to capture who exactly the aid worker is and how their unique circumstances – the personal values, choices or expectations that influence their work – may have an effect on their experience of stress. In addition, the humanitarian workers featured in most of the studies of stress and burnout in the sector are expatriates, whose emotional challenges are often associated with the specific pressures of living away from home in unfamiliar settings. Only a limited number of studies examine stress among national aid workers operating in their own countries (for some exceptional examples read Ager et al, 2012, and Cardozo et al, 2005).

A recent online consultation by PHAP (Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection) was a promising step towards putting the issue of stress and burnout and improving staff welfare in the aid sector firmly on the agenda of the UN at the World Humanitarian Summit next year, alongside a petition calling for the same. Among the rich and impassioned debate among approximately 170 aid professionals who joined the consultation online, a couple of issues emerged that reinforce the concerns I’ve outlined above. One is that we need to recognise that the emotional difficulties of this work do not only affect those doing the frontline interventions. Aid work means many things to many people; within my own professional experience this has included being a programme officer, human rights defender, researcher and campaigner. None of these roles fit traditionally within the humanitarian worker mold, but the emotions they provoke are not dissimilar due to the implications of repeatedly bearing witness to immense suffering and the horrors of mankind.

Not only is the call for better staff welfare too often focused purely on those working in emergency settings, it is also focused too often on expatriate aid workers. Yet, as acknowledged at the PHAP consultation and by others, national aid workers make up approximately 90 per cent of people operating within the aid sector.  They are often the ones exposed to more danger and risk due to their social proximity to communities their organisations are assisting and the fact they receive less security benefits and privileges – such as R&R packages and evacuations – than their expatriate counterparts.

Another important issue to emerge from the PHAP consultation is the aid sector’s organisational culture, which prevents the issue of staff welfare being widely discussed. In a sector that is constantly battling to get funds for its programmes, and where the public image is so focused on helping others, staff care costs are seen as a luxury. The fact that many organisations are not providing enough support or services for people suffering from chronic stress or burnout is obviously a major concern. However, so too is the fact that staff themselves are not admitting they are having difficulties. It’s quite possible that as aid workers, we all know someone who has suffered from chronic stress. But the signs are not always obvious. Aid workers and others within the helping professions are quite good at their emotional labour – a term described by Arlie Hochschild, the person who coined it, as ‘the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display’. In the case of aidworkers, amidst witnessing and responding to human rights violations and humanitarian catastrophes, showing one’s own vulnerability at times feels self-indulgent, or a sign of weakness amongst one’s far tougher colleagues and managers. Marianne Elliott provides some good examples of this in her account of her experiences working for the UN in Afghanistan. As does Kathleen Rodgers in her research into staff at Amnesty International.

Where there is a culture of suppressing difficult emotions it’s hard to know what the best response or form of support can be. Self-organisation among aid workers – seeking out support groups (please refer to my Resources page) – and opening up the discussion among colleagues, is in my view as important as putting pressure on  managers to take more responsibility in duty of care. As another humanitarian blogger has noted, we need to bring our burnout and our breakdowns out of the closet. Staff support and welfare interventions should certainly become more of a priority for aid organisations wishing to address staff burnout and turnover. But we as aid workers should also be willing to engage more directly with our own emotional needs and those of our colleagues. After all, this is part of the compassion that lies at the heart of all humanitarian work.